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Global South must lead climate fight

By Suhit K. Sen | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2021-04-17 09:40
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John Kerry, US President Joe Biden's Special Climate Envoy, was in New Delhi between April 5 and 8, holding talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and in China between April 14 and 17, meeting his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua on reconfiguring the global emissions-control regime. The talks came ahead of the Leaders Summit on Climate Biden will host on April 22-23, to which he's invited 40 world leaders.

Before we get to the conversations in New Delhi, a little background is needed. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in December 1997 to operationalize the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, laid down the global architecture for the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs). It was not ratified by the biggest overall emitter on the planet-the United States-despite coming into force in 2005.

Fundamental to the Kyoto Protocol was the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities", which recognized the historical role of the Global North in emitting GHGs from the last quarter of the 18th century, and the fact that the developed world had sent up most of the GHGs that cause global warming and which were still up there.

Thus, it was agreed, to simplify a complicated chronology and messy ratification process, that developed countries would take the lead in reducing GHG emissions to give countries of the Global South the "emission space" needed for economic development and reducing poverty. These countries took on binding emission-reduction targets.

The first assault on the Kyoto Protocol was mounted in 2009 at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen-COP15-where the ideas of historical contributions and "common but differentiated responsibility" as the basis for a post-Kyoto emission-reduction architecture were all but junked.

In December 2015, the US joined a fresh pact on combating climate change-the Paris Agreement-at COP21. The price that had to be paid for the US' acquiescence was the jettisoning of the distinction between the Global South and Global North in terms of formulating targets and reporting on progress. That didn't stop previous US president Donald Trump from formally pulling out of the agreement in 2017. Now Biden has returned the US to the Paris climate pact, committing to a serious push to reduce emissions in the shape of a new "Green Deal".

In other words, the concessions made to the US by adopting the Paris Agreement and, in effect, dismantling the Kyoto architecture has been fruitless. The US hasn't contributed a shred of action to slow down climate change. Now that Biden has proposed ambitious plans, we hope to see substantial emission reductions by the US.

Nevertheless, these are as yet just plans. Biden will face unrelenting opposition from not just the Republicans, who remain climate change deniers, but also from the fossil fuel and automobile industries, and sections of his own Democratic Party which have ties with "Big Oil" and the automobile industry. Private vehicles remain the centerpiece of what former US president George H.W. Bush said was the "American way of life", which he would never compromise on, at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

The South must remain skeptical, therefore, all the more because Europe, the driving force behind the movement and diplomatic initiatives against climate change, has also failed to meet the targets it has so often and so vociferously championed.

Before we suspend disbelief, the Global South, especially the poorest of countries, have to see action on several fronts. First, commitment to deeper emission-reduction targets and policies to actualize them. The rest of the world has to see this.

Second, developed countries must accelerate the pace of transfers of cost-free clean technologies to countries of the Global South as promised at the Kyoto, Doha, Bali and Paris climate conferences. Mechanisms for such transfers are imperfect, to put it euphemistically. At the same time, market-based carbon credit schemes must be discontinued because they are the loophole used by developed countries to continue emitting beyond existing targets.

And third, larger funds must be committed to the related targets of mitigation, tackling the causes and minimizing the impacts of climate change, and adaptation, reduction of negative effects and the creation of new opportunities. Fund transfers from the North to the South remains a fraught process.

It is therefore clear that the Global South has to push back and bring its own agendas to the forefront, not least because it has the most to lose from the debilitating impacts of climate change. Think, especially, of island nations and countries with long coastlines. The first opportunity to do this will be at COP26, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, from Nov 1 to 12, after a COVID-19-induced delay of one year.

If the South has to make itself heard, it is imperative that China and India take the lead in organizing the pushback. What's available in the public sphere about Kerry's visit to India is curiously anodyne. The envoy himself said he was not pushing India to commit to zero emissions just yet and the US was satisfied with India's achievements. That begs the question of what the US is willing to commit to by way of multilateral aid and domestic emission reduction.

This is not to say that the Global South does not have to meet stringent targets. All it means is that there has to be much greater equity between countries, especially given the fault lines exposed by the pandemic.

Kerry is now visiting China, and should be given a rundown on the aggressive actions that China has been taking, from reducing the use of coal, and increasing the share of clean energy and renewable in its energy mix to pledging to achieve peak emission before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060. His Chinese counterparts, to be sure, will appropriately respond to Kerry's proposals and in return present China's proposals.

Along with the other BRICS countries, China and India are uniquely placed to be the spearheads of the Global South's fight against climate change.

And they should come together to counter the disproportionate demands on the Global South in terms of reducing emissions and achieving carbon neutrality. Perhaps Biden's Leaders Summit on Climate would be a good occasion to once again assert the Global South's climate demands, which could be given further momentum at the Glasgow climate conference in November.

The author is a veteran journalist based in Kolkata, India.

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